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North Jersey | 25Nov2012 | Monsy Alvarado

Clifton service honors victims of Ukraine's Great Famine

CLIFTON -- Men, women and children from Passaic and Bergen counties gathered Sunday to chant a requiem prayer and toll a bell for the millions of lives lost during the Great Famine of the Ukraine nearly 80 years ago.

The somber service was held outside Holy Ascension Ukrainian Orthodox Church on Broad Street and was attended by more than 80 people who stood in the cold as three priests led prayer in front of a stone monument that honors the victims.

“This is among the most horrific tragedies of mass murder,’’ said Olena Tylko Halkowycz of Teaneck.

On Sunday, a round loaf of bread sat near the stone monument -- the only one of its kind in the East -- as an “offering.” Ukraine is known by the nickname of “bread basket of Europe” because of the rich, dark soil where wheat and other grains grow in abundance, said Olena Lenszuk, a church member. Two dolls, a plastic horse, and lamb also were displayed near the monument to symbolize the young children and babies who perished.

The forced starvation of around 7 million people is known as the “Holodomor” by Ukrainians and lasted from 1932 to 1933, a time when the Eastern European country was under the rule of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Historical accounts tell of Soviet police confiscating the homes and farms of Ukrainian farmers, and leaving them to starve.

In 2006, the Parliament of Ukraine adopted a law stating the famine was a genocide. Russia has admitted there was a famine, but does not recognize it as a genocide. Country officials have said that there was famine in other parts of the Soviet Union, and it’s incorrect for Ukrainians to claim that they were directly targeted.

Peter Velechko, 88, was a young boy, when he said his family was forced off their farm.

“They came to my father, looked at everything in storage and asked him what food do you have?’’’ he recalled. “And then they took it all away.”

He said his father moved the family from village to village in search of employment. At times he found work, but the jobs never lasted long. The Velechkos were forced to live in barracks, with more than 30 families, who also found themselves hungry with no job prospects, he said. He recalled the swollen bellies of the malnourished.

His family’s saving grace, he said, was a teacher at one of the villages they moved to, who was also the mother of two friends. The teacher offered their mother house cleaning work in exchange for dry bread and milk.

“That’s how we survived,’’ he said.

Velechko, of Clifton, recalled times when his father and neighbors would butcher the horses that died of starvation and distributed their remains to hungry families.

“I ate all these things,’’ he said. .

Victor Rud, an attorney who lives in Ridgewood, said his parents survived the famine, but rarely talked about what they saw and experienced. He said when he would ask questions, his father would brush off the answers.

“The tendency has been not to relive it,’’ said Rud. “Only way you get to learn it from your parents is through bits and pieces.”

He said as his father got older, his story unfolded.

“When he reached his 80s and 90s, he wasn’t able to suppress it anymore,’’ he said. “He witnessed cannibalism. He witnessed a lot of terrible things that I only found out later on.”

Holy Ascension Ukrainian Orthodox Church erected a small monument in 1992 dedicated to the victims of the famine, and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. That monument still stands near the front entrance of the church. But a few years ago, church members, raised funds for another larger monument, which is a replica of one that stands in the Ukraine capital of Kiev, Lenszuk said.

The church stone is the only such monument on the East Coast, Lenszuk said. Next year, a memorial for the Ukrainian famine will be dedicated in Washington D.C. Ukrainian organizations in Passaic County are helping raise funds for that monument, said Ken Wanio, president of the Passaic County Ukrainian Congress, which is the umbrella organization for all Ukrainian groups and associations in the county.

“This is part of our history, our tragic history, and should be remembered,’’ he said.

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